You never know where you’ll get the inspiration for a meal. Last night’s dinner came from a flock of robins that I spotted perched yesterday morning on our storm-damaged crape myrtle tree — that is, the idea for the dinner came from them. A lot of people around our Capitol Hill neighborhood — and over into the Southwest Waterfront area — have been noticing that we seem to be invaded by flocks of robins just before a snowstorm hits. Seeing as how we had four storms in a matter of 10 days, we have all been seeing a lot of robins lately. Personally, I am beginning to wonder if they are harbingers of snow, and so I am suspicious now when I see them.
As my husband and I went outside in the midst of yesterday’s blizzard to begin doing battle with the snow piling up on our sidewalk, we noticed even more robins on our neighbor’s dogwood tree, which stretches across our front garden. When we came back up to the house later on, the flock of birds suddenly flew out from our front porch — we thought perhaps they were taking refuge from the storm and were feeling sorry for the little things until we actually walked up onto the porch and saw that they had decided to use the floor as a toilet. As if we hadn’t just had enough fun cleaning up another foot of snow. Jokingly, my husband said “We should catch those stupid birds and put them in a pie!” At least, I think he was joking.
And, thus, dinner was born. Now I can’t get that old nursery rhyme out of my head: “Sing a song of sixpence/Pocket full of rye/Four-and-twenty blackbirds/Baked in a pie.”
Pot pie is one of those things that people don’t really make, maybe because it is associated with frozen t.v. dinners. But it is incredibly easy to make and really satisfying on a cold winter’s night. What I love about it is that you can literally clean out your refrigerator — all those bits and pieces of leftovers are perfect for a pot pie, and the transformation gives them new life. My pot pie included some leftover barbecue, herb-seasoned french fries, breakfast sausages, and carrot sticks, to which I added some vegetarian “chicken”, onion, green bell pepper, and frozen corn.
Being pretty tired from seemingly endless days of digging out from snowstorms, I went the quick route with the pie crust, using a food-processor method which takes a cup of flour, a stick of chilled butter, a little salt, and some ice water — the whole thing comes together in about two minutes flat. You can make pie crust in a food processor, as long as you don’t work the crust too hard; they tend to get tough if you spend too much time mixing and kneading.
If the idea of making a pie crust from scratch is going to keep you from making a pot pie, then just buy a ready-made pie crust. There are several good varieties out there; I have used the Trader Joe’s one a couple of times (it does not contain lard, as many others do) and it’s a pretty nice crust. If you want to try the food processor crust, here’s the link for the recipe by Alton Brown of the Food Network:
This recipe calls for a combination of butter and lard, but I just made it with 8 tablespoons of butter (1 stick).
Once you actually make a pot pie yourself, you will realize what a crowd-pleaser it is. What could be more cozy than a steaming slice of savory pie as the wind is howling around the eaves and you are plugging the drafts under the door with old towels? So make a pie, snuggle up with your family far away from the storm, and dream sweet dreams of springtime and flowers.
Cozy Pot Pie
This is not going to be a standard recipe, so bear with me. Making a filling for pot pie is not rocket science, so I’m just going to give you some general guidelines. You’ll need about 1-1/2 cups of protein and about 3 cups of vegetables. Here are some suggestions for the filling:
Protein: Chicken, beef, turkey, sausage, to name a few. I remember as a kid in New England that pot pies also often had fish in them — of course, that’s when cod was still readily available. Any kind of chunky fish would work, though, such as salmon, tuna, or swordfish. In the mid-Atlantic area, pot pies often feature crab and ham.
Vegetables: Obviously potatoes, carrots, and onions. Also, peas, green beans, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, leeks, and just about anything else you like. Fennel bulb is fabulous in a pot pie (a nice alternative to celery), and so are chunks of apple. I would stay away from tomatoes, or use them sparingly, simply because they tend to be a little watery for a pot pie.
Secret ingredient: I like to throw in chunks of cheese as I’m filling the pie pan (don’t cook it with the filling beforehand). I used an Irish Guinness Cheddar in last night’s pie — yum.
A pot pie filling should be pretty much cooked before it goes into the pie pan. The protein should be completely cooked, and the vegetables should be partially cooked (they’ll finish cooking in the oven). Start with sauteéing the onion in olive oil until it becomes translucent, then add the protein and brown it slightly. Then add the other vegetables one at a time, about a minute apart, stirring frequently. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, along with any other herbs and spices (I like to use thyme, paprika, and a smoked chipotle powder). While over medium heat, add about half a cup of milk and stir to thicken. Allow to simmer over low heat and add another half cup of milk until you get the right consistency. You want the sauce to be a little juicy but not too thin, otherwise it will drown the crust.
As to the crust: You should have enough dough for two crusts. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Roll out half the dough (leave the other half in the fridge for now) into a circle large enough to fill your pie plate,with about an inch hanging over the edge. Fold the additional dough up to the edge of the pan and crimp with a fork or your fingers. Line the bottom of the crust with a piece of parchment paper and fill with pie weights or raw beans (this keeps the crust from creating air bubbles). Bake for about 15 minutes, then remove the weights/beans/parchment and bake for another 5 minutes. This is called blindbaking — basically, cooking the crust about half-way.
To assemble the pie: Now that you have blindbaked the crust, you can add the filling. It should be a heaping mound — don’t worry about that, because it will settle in the oven. Roll out the other half of your pie crust, lay it over the top of the whole shebang and crimp the edges together with those of the bottom crust. Cut three or four slits in the top to allow the heat to escape. Brush the crust with heavy cream or an egg wash (one egg mixed with a teaspoon of water). Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes or until the crust is golden and you can see the filling bubbling up between the slits in the crust. Let the pie sit for about 10 minutes before serving.